Staff Writer

LINWOOD — When the South Jersey Group 3 girls basketball brackets were announced a few weeks ago, it was no surprise that Mainland Regional was named the top seed. The Mustangs had just two losses at the time and were one of the top teams in South Jersey. It seemed nothing could derail them. Then an injury to their best player, junior 6-foot-4 forward Kylee Watson, happened in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament.

Mainland lost in the semifinals of that tournament, and needed to win at least one game in sectionals to ensure they could advance and have enough days for Watson to return from concussion protocol in the second round. Claudia Mairone nailed five 3-pointers to help lead the Mustangs to a 45-21 win over No. 16 Camden Tech in the opening round, and Watson was back in uniform Thursday night in the quarterfinals.

Point guard Camryn Dirkes scored nine points to help Mainland Regional advance to the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)

Something Absegami certainly didn’t want to see.

Watsons looked as though she didn’t miss a beat despite spending nearly a week on the bench, as she went for a game-high 18 points to help Mainland get past the scrappy Braves, 46-34, and onto the semifinals, where the Mustangs will host No. 4 Winslow on Saturday at 4 p.m.

“I missed it. It was tough not being on the floor, but I tried to do all I could from the bench, just encourage them and give them some tips. I have a different perspective of the game (from the bench), kind of helping out because I can see things they don’t see. I think I learned a lot, especially going into playoffs, just sitting on the bench and seeing how teams were going to play against us. Tonight was really fun to be out there, though,” Watson said. “A bunch of people were saying, ‘oh, be careful,’ but I’m not going to change the way I play, I’m going to be just as aggressive. It was unfortunate that (the concussion) happened, but I was ready, I came out really excited to play this game. It’s been a while and I missed it.”

Absegami (13-11) actually jumped out to a 7-2 lead and seemed to be matching up well with the mighty Mustangs (24-3). But early in the second quarter, with the Braves trailing 11-7, disaster struck as senior forward Victoria Clarke — one of the key defenders against Watson — went down with a shoulder injury and couldn’t return. Still, Absegami hung tough thanks to some key 3-pointers from Liz Picardi, and trailed just 18-13 at halftime. But Clarke going down took the air out of the Braves’ upset balloon.

Absegami’s Gianna Hafner passes off to a teammate during the Braves’ playoff loss to Mainland. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)

“Tori Clarke getting injured really killed us. I thought we were matching up really well with them,” said Absegami coach Bobby Lasko. “When she went down, that changed the game because we’re not very deep to begin with. But give our kids credit, we fought our tails off tonight. We’re a gutsy group. We don’t have a girl taller than 5-foot-8, so I’m impressed we hung in there as long as we did.”

Picardi continued to hit big shots, as another three brought the Braves to within 27-21, and Haleigh Schafer and Gianna Hafner contributed some key points as well.  

“Liz is a great shooter, and I hope people understand how good Haleigh Schafer is. She’s one of the better players in South Jersey and I’m tired of hearing anything differently,” Lasko said.

But in the end, it was too much Watson. She scored down low early in the fourth to push the lead to 34-24, and Absegami simply couldn’t recover. Camryn Dirkes added nine points for the Mustangs and Madi Hafetz chipped in with eight. Watson said the Mustangs knew Absegami would be tough, and they’re not taking anything for granted, especially after losing in the championship game a year ago to Ocean City, who also is in this year’s semifinal round.  

“It’s all about now. Last year, we kind of got a taste of that. We were 28-0 going into (the South Jersey Group 3 final), and it’s one game at a time,” she said. “Today, we knew we had to come out with a lot of energy. Every game matters, every game is its own little tournament and one loss ends your season, so we were ready to come out and play hard.”

Absegami got 14 points from Picardi and 10 from Schafer, and coach Lasko said he had an important message for his team after the game.  

“I just told the girls how proud I am of them. They did everything we asked of them. This team had 17 losses last year, and for them to come back and have the season they had this year, losing a lot of girls from last year’s team — it takes a special group to fight through that, and we fought Ocean City and Mainland very tough this year,” he said. “I told them to keep their heads up because I think people are starting to recognize that we’re a program now, and we’re not just another team in the CAL. I think our better days are ahead of us, and I’m looking forward to them.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays